Holbrooke and Canada: still waiting

Paul Wells: U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan asked for a Canadian rep six months ago

On December 15 Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke to a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. You can watch video of the meeting here and read a transcript here. It’s worth watching at your leisure for any number of reasons. Near the end, however, Holbrooke introduces his staff, who attended the event with him. It’s a big staff. Seventeen people got up and said a few words to the audience. None were Canadian.

Nor was the Canadian staffer simply working late at the office and unable to get out to the think-tank schmooze. This wire-service story from the same day, Dec. 15, has a Holbrooke staffer confirming that Holbrooke continues to expect a Canadian to be assigned to his office, but that nobody has been named yet.

Now, why would anyone expect a representative of the Canadian government to be working in Holbrooke’s office? Only because Holbrooke asked for one. Six months ago. And I reported, nearly three months ago, that the Harper government was about to name such a representative to Holbrooke’s office.

“Canada is currently considering potential candidates for an assignment in Mr. Holbrooke’s office,” Jamie Christoff, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman, told me in early October.

“This contribution is being considered as we are partnering even more closely with the U.S. to deliver on crucial governance, reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan.”

Holbrooke already had an official from the British government working on secondment to his office. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed to my colleague John Geddes that Holbrooke personally requested a similar Canadian presence in his office during Cannon’s visit “a couple of months ago” to Washington. The only Washington visit by Cannon that fits that time-frame was in mid-July, half a year ago.

So what? Well, Holbrooke is the highest-ranking U.S. civilian official with direct responsibility for the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre during a period of massive turmoil, in which U.S. actions bear directly on the safety and the work assignments of every Canadian soldier and civilian in Afghanistan. Just the scale of U.S. action in Kandahar already dwarfs, and will continue to dominate, anything the smaller Canadian contingent does. This is combat, reconstruction and counterinsurgency with an elephant. As an “Af-Pak” envoy, Holbrooke is not directly comparable to any official with responsibility for only Pakistan, or only Afghanistan. When Barack Obama appointed him at the beginning of 2009 (Holbrooke reports to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton), several countries immediately named Afghanistan-Pakistan envoys who would serve as direct interlocutors for Holbrooke. The Brits, the Germans, the French, the Japanese. The official opposition started asking, in the Commons, when the Harper government would do the same. At first, of course, the government dismissed the notion. But by early autumn, at Holbrooke’s personal request, they were reconsidering.

In fact, a credible source gave me the name of a public servant who was being considered, in early October, for the assignment to Holbrooke’s office. Because I couldn’t get the name confirmed by another source I didn’t report it. (A U.S. associate of Holbrooke’s told me Holbrooke was surprised to learn there was a name floating around Ottawa. Could Holbrooke know who it was, since Ottawa wouldn’t tell him?)

That was three months ago. Meanwhile other countries continue to appoint direct interlocutors for Holbrooke. Twenty-eight countries have done so thus far, he said at the Council on Foreign Relations shindig, the latest being Belgium in early December. “We’ll meet again in the United Arab Emirates in early January,” Holbrooke said of this international clan of Af-Pak envoys. “And this is the central mechanism through which we’re coordinating an international effort.”

Holbrooke has had his job for a year and has been waiting for a Canadian interlocutor, specifically, for half of that time. More than two dozen other countries have given him somebody to talk with. Obviously Canadian Forces and Canadian civilian public servants can continue to work in Kandahar without fulfilling Holbrooke’s request. But this astonishing delay in the face of a personal request from a trusted ally is baffling.

CODA: In response to an email I sent late last night, I have just received this response from an official at Foreign Affairs: “Paul, in response to your query I can tell you that a Canadian official has not been appointed to Holbrooke’s office. We will be happy to provide new information as soon as we can.”

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